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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Epiphany: Wednesday 6 January 2010

6 January 2010 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

“All kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall do him service.” [Psalm 72: 11]

Two events in the annual royal calendar have powerful symbolic significance. The better known of these two events is the distribution of the Royal Maundy, which takes place on Maundy Thursday each year, just before Easter. This ceremony has taken place annually, perhaps even from the days of Edward the Confessor, the anniversary of whose death in 1066 we kept yesterday. At first the Monarch would imitate the action of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, when He washed His disciples’ feet as He gave them the mandate (or Maundy) to love and serve one another. Later, the Monarch would distribute clothing. For many centuries, the Maundy has been distributed as money, and it was probably in the reign of Henry IV that the number of male and female recipients was increased annually matching the king’s age. So it has been since. The ceremony took place every year at Westminster Abbey. For many centuries the Monarch had ceased to attend the service personally, but George V revived the practice in 1932 and his grand-daughter The Queen has distributed the Maundy in almost every year of Her Majesty’s reign. These days, the ceremony usually takes place in a provincial cathedral but every ten years at Westminster Abbey. It should be here next year.

The other significant annual royal ceremony with its origins in the 11th century will have taken place earlier today in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. On behalf of the Queen, at a service of Holy Communion, gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are offered at the altar and received by the Bishop of London in his capacity as the Dean of the Chapels Royal. The Bishop has described the ceremony in his personal blog:

‘January 6th at the Chapel Royal is always a cheerful occasion. The Queen’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are presented at the altar of the Chapel in St James’s Palace by senior officers drawn from the three services and escorted by the Yeomen of the Guard. At the end of the liturgy, the most senior officer is charged by the most junior choir boy with the crime of wearing spurs in Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal. James I had forbidden the practice and the child of the Chapel Royal demands the customary forfeit. The General gruffly replies: “Boy, before I accede to your request, you must sing the gamut”. If the boy manages to ascend the scale with confidence, the General extracts a ten pound note from his tight trousers and the choir spend it on pop. This scene has been repeated every Epiphany since the early seventeenth century with, I imagine, something of a hiatus under Cromwell.’

Whatever modern customs surround these events on the Feast of the Epiphany and on Maundy Thursday, they each have their own powerful significance. On Maundy Thursday, the Sovereign acknowledges a duty to follow the example of Jesus Christ and to love and serve fellow human beings, especially those in need. At the Epiphany, the Sovereign, like the Magi, the three Wise Men, often known as the three Kings, does homage and offers gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Thus the earthly Sovereign acknowledges the supreme Sovereignty of Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

Medieval sovereigns exercised varying degrees of control over their kingdoms. At their most powerful, they were absolute monarchs who could rule as they chose. Over the past few centuries power in the United Kingdom has passed to the People, who through a democratic process elect Members of Parliament. In a manner with which we are all familiar, or certainly will be later this year, and which the media’s political editors and correspondents endlessly discuss, MPs effectively choose the Prime Minister, the majority party having the whip hand, and the Prime Minister chooses members of the Government. However, this exercise of democracy has lying behind it a shadow structure, which might become more significant if no party has a clear majority of Members of Parliament. We see it most clearly expressed when the Prime Minister the chosen leader of the majority of MPs goes to Buckingham Palace to ‘kiss hands’ and receive permission from The Queen to form a Government. What is more, the chosen ministers will receive their seals of office from The Queen and collectively be known as Her Majesty’s Government.

This second structure, that I have called a shadow structure, is of course symbolic, what the 19th century essayist Walter Bagehot called the dignified rather than the efficient part of the British constitution. But symbolism is important and can be powerfully meaningful. Although the Prime Minister and the Government have effectively been elected by the People and will certainly be held to account by the People, at least within five years, they are symbolically and constitutionally answerable to The Queen. And, as we have seen in the account of the ceremony at the Chapel Royal earlier today, Her Majesty, at least formally but also in reality, acknowledges the overall Sovereignty of God as revealed in Our Lord Jesus Christ.

As today we ourselves come, as it were in the company of the Wise Men and of our Sovereign, to bend the knee before the Lord of heaven and earth, and ‘overwhelmed with joy’ [Matthew 2: 10] to ‘pay him homage’ [Matthew 2: 11], we can perhaps ponder two important reflections.

The first reflection, in this year of a general election in these lands, concerns the democratic exercise itself and its outcome in the membership of the United Kingdom Parliament and Government. It is perhaps best put simply in question form: how far will the candidates and then the newly elected Members of Parliament and of the Government acknowledge the Sovereignty of God as revealed in Our Lord Jesus Christ? in what way will such acknowledgment have an impact on the formation of legislation and other decisions of the Government and Parliament?

The second reflection is essentially the same, but applied personally to ourselves: how far will we, this day, this week, this year, acknowledge the Sovereignty of God as revealed in Our Lord Jesus Christ? in what way will such acknowledgment have an impact on the decisions we take and the way of life we follow?

‘When they saw that the star had stopped,* they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.’ [Matthew 2: 10-11]

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